There are aspects of the arguments of advocates of human re-engineering that, for what it’s worth, I agree with. One is that nanotechnology, or more specifically molecular manufacturing, holds the potential (if it is possible at all) to alter a great many things that we currently take for granted about the shape of human life. It may not yet be clear how exactly we might find ourselves in a world where something like the replicators from Star Trek are possible, but a fair amount of research and development is currently pointed directly or indirectly in that direction, and I would not want to bet against it. I’m not sure whether this belief makes me a technological optimist or a technological pessimist, which is one reason why I don’t find those terms very helpful when we try to think seriously about the future of technology.
A while back I did a phone interview with a reporter from the Miami Herald about the nano-future, and recently I found his story online. The comments that follow the story are worth noting, because they are common responses to the point I tried to make to the reporter — that not all the potential of nanotechnology is for the good, and that some of the things that sound good may not really, on reflection, be good.
At first glance, the criticisms in the comments section sound contradictory. One writer notes that all technologies have good uses and bad uses, and that since there is nothing new about that the Herald, as a newspaper, should not bother to feature stories that make this point. But a second commenter notes in effect that since molecular manufacturing could put an end to scarcity, it will have the very good effect of putting an end to all conflict and the only bad left will be those (like me, apparently) who want to tell other people what they should or should not do. So from the first point of view we should just go ahead with nanotechnology because it doesn’t really change anything, and from the second point of view we should go ahead because it will change (nearly) everything.
The link between these two arguments is moral relativism. The second author speaks in quasi-nonrelativistic terms of a “fundamental right” to life, but he or she seems to mean by that a right not to die or a right to do whatever one wants with one’s life. That is quite a distance from the meaning of those who articulated a natural right to life. What is so attractive about libertarian utopianism except if one believes that all “lifestyle” choices are morally incommensurable, that the height of moral wisdom is “do your own thing” (and for as long as possible)?
On the other hand, the truism that all technology has good and bad uses is only trite if one believes that being able to judge between them is uninteresting — that such judgments are nothing more than matters of subjective opinion. Otherwise one might think it very important indeed to find ways to maximize the good and minimize the bad.
What is really at stake here is not whether some people want to boss others around, but whether technological change is worth thinking about at all. Moral relativism makes it easy to not think about it, to just sit back and let things happen while reserving the right to protest when some arbitrary personal line is crossed. I’m skeptical that disarming our moral judgment is the best way to deal with the challenges of our ever increasing powers over nature.